I almost died yesterday.
Okay, I didn’t almost die, but I thought I was going to.
Well, I didn’t actually think that.
What I thought was, “Is everyone having a good time? Did that silence go on too long? Did I laugh too loud? Am I doing a good job?”
See, I was hosting a party, and I have anxiety.
And because I know a few things about childhood development (and after years of therapy) I understand that my anxiety boils down to a very real fear of death.
Let me explain.
Kids depend on their parents for survival. At first glance, that seems obvious. Parents feed, clothe, house, and protect their kids, so they help them survive in the most basic ways. If a parent stops doing these things, their child might die. Kids know that instinctively, even if they can’t articulate it.
But it goes deeper than that.
Why do parents feed, clothe, house, and protect their kids? Because they love them and care about them.
Which means it’s not only true that, “if my parents don’t feed me I might die…”
It’s ALSO true that “if my parents don’t love me I might die.”
This is the ripe reality upon which dysfunction grows.
My childhood was a minefield of having to Do It Right. My family was critical, perfectionist, and performative. Doing It Right included little things like drying my hair the right way and it included big things like associating with the right people. And everything in between. It was relentless. It was all about maintaining the right reputation and making the right impression.
If I failed to Do It Right, I was in big trouble. But specifically I would lose my parents’ approval. Their acceptance.
Lose my ability to survive.
I hosted a party at my house yesterday. As you can imagine, it brought a lot of opportunities to be anxious.
Of course I know that no one is going to die if I don’t provide the right snacks.
But 5 year old me doesn’t know that. 5 year old me is pretty convinced that if anyone gets upset, I’m going to die.
I used to think my over-reactive sense of anxiety was dumb. Why did I care so much about what people thought? Why was my reaction so overblown?
But understanding childhood development helped me understand myself and my history. It gave me compassion for myself.
I now have the ability to reassure myself that my reaction is understandable AND reassure myself that I’m not really going to die.
As a result, today, the day after the party, I only feel a mild, residual discomfort. I no longer have to spend the next day(s) recovering from my emotional brush with death.
And it all starts with acknowledging that these anxieties aren’t random or silly or irrational. They are tied into a very rational, very real childhood reaction to a legitimate threat to my safety.
It feels good to know this! Both 5 year old scared me and present day anxious me are pretty happy that we get to safely go on living.
Whether we throw a good party or not!